Beholder 2 Review

Most sequels are minor iterations of their predecessors. Beholder 2 is a rare breed, though. Developer Warm Lamp Games could have gotten away with rehashing the first Beholder, a 2016 dystopian title about snooping and snitching for a totalitarian state. Instead, they completely redefined the formula, keeping the art style and setting in place while providing an entirely new gameplay experience. This new formula unapologetically takes inspiration from other simulation games, most notably Papers Please. It feels familiar, but in between its relentless dark humor and solid bureaucracy simulator gameplay, Beholder 2 does more than enough to stand out from its peers.

Although it’s technically a sequel, no previous experience is necessary to jump into Beholder 2.  The game offers a new story with entirely new characters and little connection to the events of the first game or its DLC, Blissful Sleep. The world is a hopeless one in which oppressed citizens live under the iron fist of a tyrant known only as The Great Leader. Shortages, censorship, executions, and endless war define everyday life in this fictitious Cold War era state. You play as Evan Redgrave, the son of a prominent government official who died under mysterious circumstances. As Evan, you begin the game as a young, somewhat naive paper pusher, recently hired into the government’s massive, bloated bureaucracy. The new job should provide the perfect opportunity to investigate your father’s death. After your first day at work, though, shady people began recruiting you for their own goals, and you soon find yourself spying on your coworkers and eliminating them as rivals — in between sessions of filling out completely worthless, mundane paperwork. 

Beholder 2 is dark satire at its finest. There is virtually no way of presenting the game’s bleak subject matter in a pleasant way, and so the game does not even try. What else could you say about a game in which poorly performing employees are punished by being thrown into a paper shredder? At every turn is a reminder of how disconnected a cold, uncaring, bureaucratic state becomes from the welfare of its citizens. Efficiency is constantly at a rock bottom. Civil rights are nonexistent. Most of the people that you encounter are either brainwashed zealots, selfish cynics, or con artists. That includes you, as there’s no choice other than to get your hands dirty to survive and move up the ranks. You can condemn a citizen to a firing squad via a simple stamp on a complaint form or psychologically torture a meek coworker into a murderous workplace rampage. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of ways in which you can make life miserable for your fellow human beings. The game’s sick humor generally works, although by the midway point some of it begins to grow stale. You can only make the same jokes about paperwork and fascism so many times before they begin to grow old.

If you played the first Beholder and you didn't know that the game had a sequel, then you could figure it out instantly from its screenshots.  Its art style is a very distinctive one where everyone is but a dark silhouette with little more than eyes and hair to distinguish them. Besides being a clever way to produce a double-A game on a modest budget, it also shows the country’s citizens as its government would see them — as faceless blobs devoid of identity. Outside of its people, Beholder 2 opts for a realistic but fairly drab appearance that is suitable for its dreary 1980s setting. To round out its production values, the game combines a minimalist soundtrack with Simlish gibberish speech and a few unremarkable sound effects. Beholder 2 is a typical indie game that attempts to compensate for its unremarkable technology with art and style. For the most part, it succeeds.

Although it is thoroughly recognizable when it comes to its production values, Beholder 2 is fairly unconventional in its gameplay. The game boils down largely to accumulation and management of three basic resources — time, money, and prestige. You begin each day with a set amount of time, which you can use to fulfill whatever tasks you have ahead of you. Although your job, theoretically, is to process paperwork, these portions of the game are less than half of what you will be doing. Most of your time will be spent solving quests to progress the story and earn extra resources on the side. When you are doing your job then you will be playing through a small handful of minigames designed to humorously recreate the life of a middling bureaucrat. As uninteresting as that sounds, Warm Lamp Games managed to come up with some quality minigames that require mental engagement on the part of the player.  Each one requires attention to detail and some judgement to succeed. It is not the type of gameplay that could sustain an entire game, but it is more than adequate to round out the game and allow you to earn money and prestige. 

The role that you play as a paper pusher is much closer to the gameplay in Papers Please than it is to that of the first Beholder. In the first Beholder, you were limited to one 2D view of the entire play area, which was the apartment building for which you were the supervisor. Most of what you did consisted of physical action in the world, such as sneaking into people’s apartments when they left, rifling through their belongings, and installing cameras in smoke detectors. The game encouraged smart time management and it required you to learn the routines of your tenants. Since the game was in real time and the clock was always running, there was a constant air of urgency and suspense. Beholder 2, on the other hand, is almost more like a turn-based strategy game in that it allows you to choose to spend time in discrete increments.  The game tells you explicitly how much time each task takes. Some of them, like hacking into a coworker’s computer, take as little as fifteen minutes. Others, like searching through a file cabinet, can take hours.  There is no sense in hurrying anything since there is never any risk of getting caught or using extra time.  You can take your time reading through forms without any time pressure. This lack of urgency is slightly disappointing because it means that the sense of danger and mischief that was ever present in the first game is no longer present in the sequel. There is no adrenaline rush that comes from the risk of getting caught. However, it also means that you don’t waste any time simply by exploring your environment. You get to ponder every decision that you make, which makes the strategy element of this game stronger.

The game also uses a 3D engine and allows you to wander around in the ministry building where you work, which is major upgrade from the first game. Exploring a crowded building filled with your coworkers, citizens waiting in line to file a complaint, and numerous distractions, your workplace has a more concrete sense of place than the somewhat limited tenement of the first game. The setting changes as you progress up the ladder, so you get to see a wider variety of sights than you normally would for similar titles. These sights include not just your place of employment, but your modest apartment, to which you return each evening. This expansion over the previous formula is an ambitious upgrade that is much better than average for a sequel — especially one that comes out after only a two year development cycle. If you played the first game, then you may not love all of these changes, but you should at least be able to appreciate the effort that went into reinventing its formula.

Beholder 2 definitely puts some unique spin on the simulator genre, but it also contains a lot of its familiar elements. Like most of these games, you are under pressure to earn money so that you can pay your bills, buy items, and bribe other officials when you get caught doing something wrong. That pressure may quickly force you to abandon all of your ethics in order to survive. Also, like most of these games, you get to make a lot of choices, most of which have drastic and unpredictable consequences. You never know if the quest that you take to fulfill a little extra cash will doom some of your fellow citizens to death, nor do you know if somebody is watching you to snitch on you for your wrongdoings. Since resources are constantly in short supply, the choices are always difficult ones, and you are usually left with the feeling that you made the wrong one. It may even be possible to break your game by making too many unwise choices and by not earning enough money or reputation to make up for it. There are a ton of choices in Beholder 2 — enough to where I believe that you could play through it twice and take different paths to the end each time. The decision trees that stem from these choices seem well thought out and designed with care, which keeps the game feeling fresh, and not feeling like a copy-and-paste effort.

If you like dark humor, dystopian fiction, or Papers Please, then Beholder 2 is a fairly easy game to recommend. It’s as easy one to enjoy, regardless of whether or not this is your first foray into the series. Rather than providing just another dystopian simulation of every day life, the game brings some unique and clever ideas to the table. In between its art style, all of the NPCs that you can meet and interact with, and the variety of tasks that you get to complete, there is more than enough to see and do over the course of fifteen hours or so to keep you entertained. Beholder 2 moves a little bit slow at times and its one-note humor can be hit-or-miss, but it still merits a Ministry of Reviews stamp of approval.